A Comprehensive Three-dimensional Cortical Map of Vowel Space

Mathias Scharinger, William Idsardi, Samantha Poe

Mammalian cortex is known to contain various kinds of spatial encoding schemes for sensory information including retinotopic, somatosensory, and tonotopic maps. Tonotopic maps are especially interesting for human speech sound processing because they encode linguistically salient acoustic properties. In this study, we mapped the entire vowel space of a language (Turkish) onto cortical locations by using the magnetic N1 (M100), an auditory-evoked component that peaks approximately 100 msec after auditory stimulus onset. We found that dipole locations could be structured into two distinct maps, one for vowels produced with the tongue positioned toward the front of the mouth (front vowels) and one for vowels produced in the back of the mouth (back vowels). Furthermore, we found spatial gradients in lateral–medial, anterior–posterior, and inferior–superior dimensions that encoded the phonetic, categorical distinctions between all the vowels of Turkish. Statistical model comparisons of the dipole locations suggest that the spatial encoding scheme is not entirely based on acoustic bottom–up information but crucially involves featural–phonetic top–down modulation. Thus, multiple areas of excitation along the unidimensional basilar membrane are mapped into higher dimensional representations in auditory cortex.